Grand Teton Slam

After our morning enjoying the wildlife and water features of Yellowstone, we turned our sights south and headed towards Grand Teton National Park. Although the older, larger park typically gets more recognition, Teton is still an absolutely wonderful place to visit. As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is home to many of the same animals and plants you can find to the north. In addition, the vistas along the Snake River and various lake shores are often even more stunning than the landscapes in Yellowstone. Hooking east from the Jackson Lake Junction, we drove along the Oxbow Bend and exited the park. We set up camp at Fireside RV Park a short distance from the gates at Moran Junction, and this became our base of operations for the next few days. It was a pretty nice place to stay, thanks to both the proximity to the park and the wildlife inhabiting the area. Miriam and I spotted a Long-tailed Weasel, and groups of swallows, bluebirds, blackbirds, and siskins were seen foraging nearby. There was even a family of Trumpeter Swans down the road that we passed on our way in and out each day.

For our first evening, we took a slow ride through the Grand Teton driving loop. Of all the charismatic large mammals inhabiting the region, the Moose was our only glaring miss so far. Knowing that these giant deer are most active at dawn and dusk, we scanned thoroughly as we rolled past willows and forests along the riverbanks. Although our twilight drive provided us with some lovely photo opps and no shortage of wildlife encounters, we failed to locate our primary target before turning in for the night.

We slept in a bit the following day, but we still made a morning search run before digging into breakfast. Once again, no Moose. Mom and Dad decided that we should head into Jackson for the day, so we began a leisurely journey south once again. Large crowds parked on the roadside at Jackson Lake Junction gave us pause, and we were treated to distant views of a mother Grizzly standing up to survey the area. A stop at the Snake River Overlook proved to be worthwhile, turning up Townsend’s Solitaires, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, “Audubon’s” Warblers, and more, most of them tending to newly-fledged young. I also spotted a mouse hiding under the wheels of a vehicle that was about to pull out, so I alerted the drivers and directed them away from the tiny rodent. It seemed intent on rushing towards the nearest tires to hide, so hopefully my efforts to protect it weren’t just prolonging the inevitable.

We continued along towards Antelope Flats, taking a dirt road south from Mormon Row in search of Greater Sage-Grouse and other sagebrush specialties. Miriam checked off Western Meadowlark and picked out a Sage Thrasher, which gave better views than my lifer from the Lamar Valley a few days ago. At midday we reached the Gros Ventre River, the boundary between Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge. Pausing at a roadside pullover, Dad lifted his binoculars and scanned the far river bank.

“…there’s a Moose!…and it’s a bull!”

There’s something special about finding your own wildlife to watch. Critter-based traffic jams are very common in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so Dad was especially pleased to get credit for our surprise Moose. His discovery created a jam of its own, with over a dozen passersby pulling over to watch the huge bull browsing on the willows. I’ve seen my share of Alces alces in my day, but this was easily the biggest, burliest beast I’ve been lucky enough to meet. It’s been far too many years since I’ve actually seen a Moose despite summers working in Alaska and Maine, even though I did hear an individual crashing through the woods outside the Project Puffin headquarters in 2014. This was a reintroduction that was long overdue, and Miriam was especially happy to make his acquaintance. We did a little bit of birding on our side of the river before loading up and resuming our journey.

It started to rain as we approached the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which conveniently offered some indoor entertainment when we needed it most. Dad pointed out hummingbird feeders near the entrance, and I was able to find a smaller, shorter-tailed female among several Broad-tailed Hummingbirds bellying up to the bar. This was a long-awaited lifer that a few of my family members had over me: the Calliope Hummingbird. Leaving the hummers and the watchful eyes of the trees, we headed inside to check out the artwork.

The museum was really quite impressive. In addition to pieces by local artists and older paintings, they had an exhibition on the diversity of hummingbirds as well as a wing dedicated to Joel Sartore’s “photo ark” project. I also enjoyed the statues outside, which included extinct North American birds alongside the quintessential megafauna of the Rocky Mountains. It was definitely worth a visit, and by the time we were ready to leave the rain was starting to let up.

Down in Jackson, Miriam and I split off from my folks for a little while. Although she was enduring pain brought on by overactive wisdom teeth, she was still eager to explore the area for wildlife. As we drove into town, she’d spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird along the road. Hoping for a closer look, she led me down the street towards the Flat Creek Marsh. We passed a couple of Black-billed Magpies on our way out of town, though most of them were raggedy, short-tailed juveniles that didn’t look quite as svelte as their dapper parents.

A family of Common Ravens was roving around on the lawn outside the visitor center, putting on quite a show. One of the parents stopped by to cough up a meal, and the youngsters quickly began squabbling over the chunks of meat provided by the adult. Juvenile ravens usually lack the wary tendencies of full-grown birds, but their minds are just as sharp and curious. They strolled right over to Miriam and me, regarding us with bright eyes. When I offered my best raven impression as a greeting, they froze in place at the croaking sound. I swear I could hear the gears spinning in their heads as they tried to figure out what we were up to. “I can see why you like these guys so much,” Miriam admitted. “They’re pretty cool.”

Despite its proximity to both the town and the busy highway, Flat Creek Marsh turned out to be surprisingly lively. We heard a few Soras vocalizing loudly from the reeds at the edge of the lawn, and a snipe that suddenly flushed from underfoot almost gave Miriam a heart attack. A variety of ducks were floating on the pools, and Marsh Wrens bounced from stem to stem. We finally managed to locate some Yellow-heads, listening to their bizarre cries echoing across the marshy landscape.

We reunited with my parents in town to do some shopping, drinking, and eating. We then returned to Antelope Flats to continue our search for sage-grouse, but unfortunately we came up short yet again. I was happy to find my first Brewer’s Sparrows, though, and we appreciated close looks at Pronghorn, Mule Deer, and a Long-tailed Weasel which was slinking through a grate at the entrance to a ranch.

We watched the sun go down behind the Tetons one last time, drinking in the beauty of the sagebrush plains set against the stark peaks in the distance. Simply gorgeous.

We had to drive up through Yellowstone one last time to drop off the rental car in Cody, so we were treated to another day driving around in search of wildlife. Waterbirds were the highlights along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, including a confiding White Pelican, floating flocks of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and unexpected sightings of Western Grebe and Franklin’s Gull. We waved goodbye to the bison, the geysers, and the wolf watchers as we made our way north to Gardiner, leaving Yellowstone behind…for now.

It’s always difficult to board the plane and leave for home at the end of a successful adventure. Miriam and I treated ourselves to one last hike the morning before we returned to the Bozeman airport, and it was absolutely worth it. We finally got a look at her number one target bird for the trip, the Lazuli Bunting, after hearing one singing outside our window the previous evening. In addition to picking up a few other species, we were treated to breathtaking vantage points from the Joe Brown Trail up Dome Mountain. It was a delightful end to a spectacular vacation.

Farewell for now, Yellowstone! My track record has proven that I can’t stay away for very long, and I think Miriam’s stellar first visit may have established the same need to come back again. I’ll jump at any excuse to experience the magic of America’s first national park. This visit, for what it’s worth, resulted in some new favorite Yellowstone memories! Until next time…

Year List Update, July 28 – 347 Species (+ Trumpeter Swan, Western Meadowlark, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Sora, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Brewer’s Sparrow, Bullock’s Oriole, Franklin’s Gull, Western Grebe, Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Rock Wren, Dusky Flycatcher)

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In the Yellowstone

What is summer without an adventurous vacation? After batting around several possible destinations for my travels over break, I took up my parents invitation to meet them out in the Greater Yellowstone Area at the end of July. Miriam had this corner of the world marked on her must-see list for a long time, so she was eager to join me on my journey. We elected to fly out rather than ride in the family RV for the entirety of the journey. Even our layover at the Denver airport provided excitement, with Miriam’s first glimpse of real mountains, including a distant view of Pike’s Peak, and her first lifer of the trip, Western Kingbird. Once we landed in Bozeman, we enjoyed a scenery photoshoot with a Vesper Sparrow singing at the edge of the parking lot. My parents picked us up in a rental car and we began the drive south towards Wyoming. I recognized many of the vistas along the way, especially once we reached the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Before we even entered the park, we were treated to close-up looks at families of Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn. Its been years since I last observed either of the distinctive ungulates, and these sightings were the first of several welcome reunions with local wildlife.

Once we reached Gardiner, we paused to take some pictures at the famous Roosevelt Arch which serves as the northern gateway to the park. We continued to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I led Miriam out on the trails while Mom and Dad cooked up dinner in the picnic area. We explored the terraces and pools lining the boardwalk, taking note of local birds like Violet-green Swallow, Black-billed Magpie, and Western Tanager. With the sun sinking lower in the sky and our bellies full, we continued south along the Firehole River.

Photo opps and critter sightings were plentiful on the drive between Mammoth and our campsite. The mighty American Bison were the stars of the show, but we also came across a number of Elk grazing along the edges of the riverside pullouts. Miriam was the first to spot a Grizzly Bear, calling out a cub which the rest of us glimpsed disappearing into the trees when we turned back to look. We were treated to a performance by a displaying pair of Sandhill Cranes dancing with one another in the fields adjacent to the road. The concentrations and closeness of animals in Yellowstone, in addition to the great variety of species present, make the park a truly special place.

After stopping by the Old Faithful Geyser Basin at sunset, we headed to our campground at Bridge Bay and settled in for the night. When we awoke, Miriam and I set out to explore the area and look for birds. White-crowned Sparrows and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, and Miriam was delighted when we noted a pair of Red Crossbills passing overhead. We found a Gray Jay and a few Clark’s Nutcrackers poking around the picnic tables in search of breakfast, and after taking in a meal of our own we set out into the park again.

We took the rental car on an extensive driving tour of Yellowstone’s best. Chittenden Bridge, Canyon Village, Artist’s Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Dunraven Pass were among the stops we made as we worked our way north. We added American White Pelican, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, and more to Miriam’s life list and my year list.

We eventually reached the Lamar Valley, a renowned wildlife viewing site even by the lofty standards of Yellowstone. We kept a sharp eye out for Gray Wolves, which frequently use this region, but couldn’t locate them or their attendant crowds of admirers. I did, however, spot my first new bird of the trip: a briefly-glimpsed Sage Thrasher that flushed to avoid an oncoming adult bison. We could see huge herds of buffalo dotting the landscape, and once we reached Soda Butte we came face to face with a massive group of the majestic megafauna. Now matter how many times I see these creatures, I never get tired of them. They are simply superlative, incredible animals.

Where the buffalo roam…

After dinner and before bed, we made a quick trip up to the Hayden Valley. A huge crowd with scopes trained on the forest’s edge told us that we had just missed an evening show from the resident wolf pack. One of the pups, a little black one, briefly bounced back into view before returning to the den, but all we saw was a dark smudge on the screen of a phone that one watcher had attached to his optics. Some of the locals informed us that this family, the Wapiti Lake Pack, was consistently visible from this overlook on a daily basis, so we all agreed that we should return the next day.

After another night in the camper, we awoke to find morning mist shrouding the landscape. We passed a few grazing Elk as we headed north towards the Hayden Valley, and there were several other individuals feeding on the banks of the Yellowstone River when we reached the vantage point where the wolf watchers were already stationed.

Shortly after we settled in at the observation pullover, someone said that they spotted something moving in the fog. While we strained to catch a glimpse, one of the veteran observers raised a hand and urgently hushed the crowd. “They’re howling…” he whispered, reverently. The entire congregation went totally silent, and we listened, awestruck, to the ghostly wails of the Wapiti Lake wolves. I’ve been fortunate enough to see these legendary predators on several occasions, but this was the first time I was able to hear their howling. When the mist faded, the wolves were finally visible as they trotted across the vast plains. We spotted three adults, two males that dispersed from the famous Mollie’s Pack and a female known as 1091, and a yearling individual. The Elk foraging in the valley were very wary of the hunters, giving them a wide berth as they passed by. The yearling seemingly couldn’t resist messing with the potential prey, stalking close to a pair of females and getting them riled up. We spent most of the morning watching the wolves from afar, and it was a morning well-spent.

Wolf Pack, Assemble! (Volume UP)

Mom let us know about a distant Grizzly Bear that she observed from the restroom parking lot, so we peeled ourselves away from the Wapiti Lake Pack to have a look. We continued onward to the Dragon’s Mouth and the Mud Volcano, passing a few roadblock bison along the way. I picked up my first Cassin’s Finches, and we also found Least Chipmunks and both Golden-mantled and Uinta Ground-Squirrels. We revisited the Old Faithful Area for a daylight performance, and we made the Midway Geyser Basin our final stop in Yellowstone for the day. We still had to drive south to Grand Teton before nightfall, but there was no way we were leaving until Miriam got to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. After a lifetime of biology coursework using the colorful image of this spectacular feature for lessons about extremophiles, one might think that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Like most of Yellowstone, however, it does. It absolutely does.

Year List Update, July 24 – 332 Species (+ Western Kingbird, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, Sandhill Crane, White-crowned Sparrow, Clark’s Nutcracker, American White Pelican, California Gull, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Cassin’s Finch, Wilson’s Snipe)

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Lake George and Laziness

This is just a quick update to fill in the gaps between my second adventure to Bombay Hook and my trip to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I had the opportunity to visit Lake George with my three siblings and a number of close friends. The opportunity to camp out at one of my family’s favorite locations was a welcome break from Long Island life, and there was plenty of drinking and eating to celebrate the summer. I didn’t bring a camera with me, but I was able to work in some morning walks around the campground each day. A family of ravens, a pair of loons, and a fight between a Merlin and some crows were among the natural highlights I observed. The biggest surprise came when I was walking along the edge of the woods at the far edge of camp. A muffled thumping noise reached my ears, reminiscent of a motor running somewhere in the forest. This was the drumming display of a male Ruffed Grouse, an uncommon sound at this time of year. I encounter grouse very infrequently, so I was especially happy to hear the distant performance. Beyond the birding, my time at the Lake was a much-needed chance for rest and relaxation.

After returning home on Sunday night, the remainder of the week was spent lounging around and making small-scale outings. Miriam and I searched in vain for some Brown Pelicans that had been reported at Jones Beach, and we also checked out the local birds breeding at Cow Meadow Park. We even discovered a recently fledged cohort of Common Ravens roosting on the Jericho water tower with their parents. The final days of the work week were dedicated to packing our bags for our upcoming flight. Once I’ve got all my photos in order, I’ll get to work on penning a summary of our time in the Rocky Mountains. Stay tuned!

Year List Update, July 21 – 315 Species (+ Ruffed Grouse)

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Miriam and Tim’s Little Adventure

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and I had every intention of returning. That being said, I did not expect to find myself back there before the end of the week. While I was discussing potential plans for Saturday with Miriam, she casually mentioned that she’d be interested in adding Northern Bobwhite to her life list and trying for the European vagrants visiting the First State. Despite the last minute nature of the scheme, I couldn’t really find an excuse not to sign on. Miriam only needed a few more birds before reaching the milestone of 200 species observed, and I was hoping to get additional views of the specialties and rarities from last weekend. The 3-hour, cross-state drive to Delaware is even shorter than our upstate Great Gray chase back in March, and what is summer vacation for if not crazy, spur of the moment expeditions?

We elected to sleep in relative to my previous predawn departure, hitting the road just before 8 AM. We were unable to avoid a few traffic jams along the way, but our journey south was fairly easy overall. As soon as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we were treated to an adult Bald Eagle flying down the right shoulder of the road towards us. The low flying raptor provided the best views Miriam has ever had of an eagle to date, and she was understandably excited about the close encounter. I pulled over to put the Jeep’s top up as we approached the refuge, and although the flies were more manageable than last week we were still glad to have the protection of a roof. To Miriam’s delight, we heard Bobwhites calling from the fields while we paid the entry fee. Continuing along the auto route, I checked in with other birders who informed me that the Little Egret, Little Gull, and Ruff had all gone missing after being seen earlier in the morning. On the plus side, an out-of-place juvenile White Ibis was foraging nearby, and we discovered several flocks of American Avocets, one of Miriam’s most wanted birds.

I was frustrated by the absence of our rarer targets, but not so much as to give up on them. I led the charge to the Shearness Pool observation tower, which offered great views of the Little Egret’s favored foraging sites. While carefully panning through the scattered congregations of wading birds, I noticed an individual with streamer-like plumes flickering behind its head like a banner in the breeze. Dark lores were apparent in comparison to the bright yellow faces of the associated Snowies, and the bird seemed marginally taller and bigger billed. Despite the distance, I finally enjoyed the opportunity to watch the Little Egret in nature, in the moment. Miriam and I repeatedly traded places at the scope, admiring the graceful bird as it fed among its more common cousins.

Little Wonders

We fought through the biting insects and made our way back to the parking lot, where I heard a Blue Grosbeak calling in the shrubs. The handsome male that eventually hopped up on an exposed branch was the lucky species to secure spot #200 on Miriam’s life list. Circling back to Raymond Pool, we found a pair of helpful birders who were nice enough to let us look at a far-off Ruff through their scope. There have actually been several distinct individuals identified among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, and other shorebirds at Bombay Hook over the past week, but this bird looked like it could’ve been the same one I saw on Sunday.

On the other hand, it seemed like my former nemesis was back to its old tricks after throwing me a bone last time. The Little Gull, previously so reliable at Raymond, had been evading us throughout the day. Our new friends informed us that the gull had been wandering around the refuge, flying to and from the vast tidal marshes east of the driving loops. They said they’d last seen it at Shearness, and some other visitors along the road gave us more specific directions to where it was roosting. I was eventually able to locate the tricky target, a dark-capped lump of white feathers, sitting by itself way out on the mudflats. I quickly put Miriam on the distant bird, and when I set up my phone to do some digiscoping I found that the gull had vanished once again. Sneaky little bugger.

Several Black-necked Stilts were seen feeding in the marshes, Diamondback Terrapins crossed the road ahead of our car, and the songs of Field Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Indigo Bunting filled in the soundscape around us. We dedicated some time to snapping pictures at the Purple Martin colony, and the dapper aerialists were happy to show off for us.

The feeders near the visitor center hosted American Goldfinches and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A couple of Eastern Cottontails, the only wild mammals seen on this outing, were browsing at the edge of the lawn and the thicket. A raucous, chattering cry caused us to wheel around just in time to see a male Yellow-breasted Chat floating down into the foliage as he completed his song flight. We slowly approached the landing site, and I was able to record his wildly improvisational tune. Miriam was amused by that chat’s quirky performance, especially since all of my stories about these weird songbirds had her looking forward to meeting the infamous “bush bird” for the first time. The chat failed to show itself for a second look despite our best efforts, and the Northern Bobwhites across the road remained similarly hidden from sight. Even without a visual on the quails, we managed to connect with every single bird we came looking for. Egret, gull, Ruff, ibis, Bobwhite, chat, avocet, grosbeak, eagle…checks all around, with plenty of extra goodies!

After more than 6 hours exploring Bombay Hook, we packed up our things and headed north. Our growing hunger necessitated a pit stop for an early dinner, and we picked a major winner. Brick Works Brewing and Eats in Smyrna exceeded all expectations: Earth and Fire Fries to start, a Smokehouse Burger for me, Bacon Mac and Cheese for Miriam, and a number of house brewed beers that I just had to sample. I’ll certainly be returning to this establishment the next time I find myself back in Delaware, though it will most likely be longer than a week this time. Our drive home to Long Island was even easier than the drive down, and the sunset behind us brought an end to a perfect day of adventure. It’s always nice to get out and do some impromptu exploration!

Year List Update, July 8 – 314 Species

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Studying Marine Nature

Some summer days are just lazy and pleasant. Nothing too dramatic or exciting, just casual fun. Miriam and I visited the Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area yet again, and we took a lot of pictures. This easily accessed marsh habitat is a popular spot for photographers of all ability levels, and many of the local wildlife have become accustomed to human presence. Like a less exotic version of the Anhinga Trail in the Florida Everglades, OMNSA provides great opportunities to get up close and personal with the resident critters.

The star of the show today was an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. We watched as the stealthy predator stalked crabs just beyond the boardwalk’s guard rail, tearing off their claws before gulping them down. Miriam pointed out that you could watch the heron’s hapless prey moving as they were slowly swallowed. Awesome.

Crabs are a popular menu item at the Oceanside marsh. We spotted a Herring Gull tucking into a larger Blue Crab out on the mudflats.

We stopped by the Osprey platform, briefly catching a glimpse of one of the nestlings. Two Green Herons, a youngster and an adult, were foraging in one of the tidal creeks. The other expected wading birds, swallows, and sparrows were all present in some numbers.

A Snow Goose has been hanging around with the Canada Geese at this site, seemingly an injured individual who failed to migrate north this spring. We saw it in the distance on our last visit, but today it was resting on a grassy knoll closer to the main trails. Miriam’s quest to photograph a Willet in flight continued, with some success. She did manage to score a clear shot of one bird with its flashy wings spread as it touched down on the muddy shoreline. A clear in-flight snapshot is still the primary goal, yet to be achieved satisfactorily.

Our Oceanside outing, though brief and easygoing, was a fine use of a sunny summer morning. Even the small-scale adventures are a welcome break from the daily hustle and bustle!

Year List Update, July 5 – 314 Species

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Gotta Enjoy the Little Things

This is a story that began a decade ago, in late December 2007. My good buddy Brendan led the charge on an ambitious attempt to score a rarity hat-trick along the South Shore barrier islands. Despite the bitter cold and vicious winds, we made a valiant effort to find our target birds. Regrettably, we fell flat on our faces and missed all three, dipping on Townsend’s Solitaire at Oak Beach and both Black-headed Gull and Little Gull at Point Lookout. Over the years, I have settled these scores one by one. I’ve gotten Black-headed Gull every year since seeing my lifer in 2015, and I finally saw a solitaire in New York this January. The Little Gull, however, proved to be a notoriously dodgy opponent, eventually earning a spot as my number one Nemesis Bird.

Once somewhat regular on Long Island in winter with flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, Little Gulls have become much harder to find now that numbers and concentrations of wintering Bonies have declined precipitously. A detour to chase a report in Elmira while driving home from Ithaca last April saw me miss the bird by 45 minutes. I failed to connect with an individual that hung around Montauk this February, conducting a fruitless search the day after it had last been seen. Then there was the youngster that visited the Nickerson tern colony last month, evading me and taunting me on two occasions. Last weekend, Mike Z and Tom FH offered me a spot on an impromptu journey to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, where a Little Gull and an even rarer Little Egret had been discovered. I declined at the last minute due to obligations with family and friends, and they naturally got both birds. With the newfound freedom of summer vacation and reports that my Nemesis and its friend were still present, I decided to make my own trip down to Delaware.

I awoke at exactly 4 AM, and I was driving away from the house before 4:15. The Belt Parkway and Staten Island were conquered so quickly that it felt like a dream, and my GPS welcomed me to New Jersey at 5 AM on the dot. I pulled up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge at 7:15, paying the entrance fee and making my way towards the observation tower at Raymond’s Pool. Purple Martin apartments bustling with activity and male Blue Grosbeaks fighting over territory highlighted that I’d covered a lot of ground since leaving my bed. As promised by birders who’d visited the site before me, insect activity levels were insane. Biting flies swarmed my vehicle and tried to keep up as I drove along. I slathered myself with insect repellent before stepping out of the car, which kept the little monsters from landing on me but didn’t stop them buzzing around my head. The bugs kept circling me as I walked the trail, never landing, but once I climbed the tower they seemed to disappear. As I turned my gaze toward the pool, I immediately saw the Little Gull, preening calmly on the near shoreline. What an appropriate lack of fanfare and drama after 10 years of missed connections! I took some time to admire my quarry in the early morning glow, and nearby birders pointed out a male Ruff among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, peeps, and plovers that were picking the flats. The day was off to a great start.

As I watched the Ruff and the gull, I continually watched for the third European visitor present at the refuge. There were many long-legged waders dancing around in the shallows at the far end of Raymond’s Pool, and one of them caught my attention as a potential candidate for the Little Egret. Even at a distance, it seemed subtly different from the Snowy Egret it was foraging with. Predictably, once I mentioned the bird of interest to those with stronger scopes it took flight along with its close associate. We followed their trajectory to some trees near a fork in the road, where one path goes towards the entrance and the other continues on to Shearness Pool. I made a mental note to take a look there when I finished up at Raymond’s, and returned to scanning the closer areas. We saw numerous species of shorebirds, herons, and songbirds, and I was very happy to hear the distinctive voices of Northern Bobwhites. Several large Snapping Turtles could be seen trudging through the mud, and I spotted a few Diamondback Terrapins along the road. When I reached the junction between Raymond’s and Shearness Pools, I paused to check the trees. There were about a dozen Snowy Egrets roosting in the branches, and I started analyzing each of them for field marks. Two of the birds were annoyingly hidden, perched at the back and largely obscured by twigs. I noticed that other cars were approaching the intersection from behind me, and I was blocking the way forward at this crossroads. I snapped a few quick pictures of the assemblage and continued on, forgoing closer study so I could clear the road for the other nature enthusiasts.

The familiar faces from the tower at Raymond Pool caught up with me at Shearness, setting up their scopes and scanning intently. I was using my car as an observation blind to defend myself from the biting insects, but I decided to step out and check in with my fellow birders. When I ambled over to them, they mentioned that they had seen the Little Egret in the trees at the junction before it flew off to the north. I began to wonder what my road etiquette had cost me. At the time, we focused on trying to refind the bird, though I did ask them for details later. I was told that the Little Egret had been tucked in towards the back of the tree, hidden among the branches, perched next to a Snowy. When I reviewed my photos on the back of the camera, my suspicions were confirmed.

The frustratingly concealed pair that I’d noted before driving away may well have been the same two birds I saw fly to the tree during the earlier stakeout, but one of them was definitely the Little Egret. My pictures show the bird preening, and unlike the shaggy crests of the adjacent Snowies, it has long, thin feathers extending from the back of the head. The marked difference in head plumes is the single best field mark for distinguishing between these two species, as illustrated by the illustrious David Allen Sibley. In some of the images, it is possible to make out the bare skin between the eyes and the bill, the lores. The dull, grayish face of the Little Egret contrasts with the vivid yellow of its Snowy cousin. Although the photographic evidence of these two characteristics confirmed that I had seen the right bird, the poor views and subsequent confirmation of the ID were not as satisfying as it would’ve been to enjoy the egret in the moment. If only all lifers could be as cooperative as the morning’s Little Gull!

In the time between seeing the egret and checking my photos, I continued to explore the refuge. I spent a good chunk of my time at Shearness Pool, scanning from the roadside before heading to the watchtower. Once again, I was attacked by flies between the car and the observation platform, but I was mysteriously left alone once I ascended to the upper deck. At one point I saw an egret in a flock at the furthest corner of the mudflats that had long, thin streamers billowing out behind its head. At such a distance, my scope wasn’t powerful enough to confirm anything else before the bird took flight. Although it flew slightly closer, it hid behind a row of vegetation, and the egret that came out didn’t look as promising as the initial sighting. Did the Little Egret fly in and sit tight while a Snowy walked out? Were the “head plumes” I thought I saw pale, poorly placed blades of grass? Was this the tricky Snowy with stray elongated feathers in its lacey crest that we saw earlier? Some birding questions remain unanswered, but I’m comfortable with that. At least least I did see the bird, however ridiculous the circumstances may have been. There were plenty of other goodies to distract me from the headaches the egrets were giving me. As I stood vigil at the Shearness tower, I was treated to a number of lovely locals, including a pair of Orchard Orioles, noisy Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and several Bald Eagles that terrorized the wading birds out on the flats.

The flies found me once again when I started back towards my car. As I swatted to keep them at bay, I heard a familiar medley of whistles, purrs, and chuckles emanating from the bushes by the parking lot. The singer disappeared in a flash as I approached, but I could hear several other Yellow-breasted Chats vocalizing nearby. I reapplied my bug spray and paused to listen for a while. One of the birds fluttered into view, showing off his song flight display. His return to the foliage was received by a territorial Gray Catbird, and after a brief scrap the chat flew across the road, directly at me. He landed in a bare bush at close range, watching me intently as I snapped pictures. His lively performance continued, popping his head up for each hoot and leaning forward to deliver raspy chatters. I was especially happy to spend some quality time with this bird, since it felt like a celebration of the recent AOS decision to recognize the Yellow-breasted Chat’s distinctiveness by classifying it in a monotypic family separate from the warblers. Three cheers for Icteriidae!

Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers were encountered along the brushy edges between field and forest. I heard Marsh Wrens and Clapper Rails calling from the tidal channels east of the main road. A Painted Turtle, a White-tailed Deer fawn, and numerous dragonflies rounded out the day’s non-avian checklist. The deer flies, green head flies, and mosquitoes were less welcome observations, but it was a gorgeous day at the refuge all the same.

Back at the park headquarters, I enjoyed an extended photo shoot and recording session with the breeding Purple Martins. Several structures chock full of nesting gourds were set up near the main lot, and the giant swallows were hard at work collecting meals for their growing offspring. I heard a few more Bobwhites in the field across the way, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a visual on the adorable little quails. Hearing their namesake cries, which have become so rare in many parts of their former range, was enough of a treat for me.

I finally took my leave of Bombay Hook in the early afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to this famous refuge, and I was especially pleased that I caught up with all of my planned targets. Although the elusive Little Egret was not nearly as accommodating as the Little Gull that broke my curse, seeing both species in one place without a trip to Europe was a privilege. My number one Nemesis Bird spot is now left open, and I’m sure that vacuum can’t exist for long. If nothing else, I’ll need to get improved views a Little Egret one of these days. The Ruff was a welcome bonus bird, and my encounters with the chats, Bobwhites, turtles, and other wildlife all added up to make this “little” adventure a grand success. The expedition was well worth the long drive, though the manageable traffic on both legs of the trip certainly helped to keep me sane. Here’s hoping my next outing is equally enjoyable!

Year List Update, July 2 – 314 Species (+ Little Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs, Northern Bobwhite, Ruff, Little Egret)

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School’s Out for Summer

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but it’s finally summer for real! What’s more, my grad school days are completely behind me! The sense of relief after two years of hard work is immense, and it was a struggle against absurdity right up until the end. My master’s defense work was due on Monday, June 26. I was invited to several awesome-sounding events for the preceding weekend, so I pushed myself to get everything completed during the prior week. I managed to have everything finished and submitted by Wednesday, and it’s a damn good thing I did. After celebrating Greg’s birthday on Friday after work, I fell asleep on a train and left my bag behind when I got off. Without my laptop and student data, I would’ve been pretty far down a certain creek if I had not completed my responsibilities beforehand. In a way, my friend’s saved me by inviting me to parties that motivated me to finish early!

After helping Dad put up some fence on Saturday, Miriam and I headed out to the Hamptons for a delicious dinner courtesy of Anthony. After some fantastic paella, a smorgasbord of appetizers, plenty of drinks, and a late night dip in the pool, we took our leave. Brendan joined us on the journey home and we stopped to listen for nightbirds along the way. The Whip-poor-wills we heard near Francis Gabreski Airport were Miriam’s first, and a Marsh Wren was an acceptable consolation prize for the missed Chuck at Quogue. Wine tasting in Baiting Hollow with my coworkers made Sunday a roaring success, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Joe’s thorough planning. I made it through my school’s graduation on Tuesday and the last day of work on Wednesday. Miriam wanted to get in some exploration before my final presentation on Thursday night, so we made a morning excursion to Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area.

Miriam had never been to this preserve before, so I took joy in showing off the array of cooperative wildlife that can be observed and photographed along the trails. We spent some time near the end of the path, keeping a respectful distance from the Osprey nest and snapping pictures as the parents watched over their growing nestlings.

We were fortunate enough to see several Saltmarsh Sparrows fluttering in and out of the grass. A few of them were nice enough to perch up for extended periods of time, allowing nice views before they hopped down and scurried away out of sight. The resident Red-winged Blackbirds were far more conspicuous, providing ample opportunity for close study and photography.

Both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are common at Oceanside. We watched as one of the Snowies waggled its bright yellow feet in the water. This behavior is believed to either lure or stir up aquatic life so the bird has an easier time striking at them. Whatever the purpose of these colorful extremities, they make these fancy birds look extra flashy.

After our outing at Lido Beach, Miriam developed a desire to get a picture of a Willet in flight. The bold, contrasting patterns of black and white feathers on their wings are striking subjects for photography. Thanks to the concentrations of birds and their proximity to the trails, Oceanside is one of the best nearby places to make an effort for this goal. Unfortunately, the birds seemed to be toying with us this morning. They never took off while we were watching and waiting, and whenever they went airborne they would fly behind vegetation or in front of the sun. No nice flight shots this time, but the birds will be there all summer. Plenty of time to try again another day!

At the opposite end of the cooperation spectrum were a family of Tree Swallows posted right along the path. Three new fledglings were nestled together on a branch, looking mighty adorable as they waited for their next meal.

Mom and Dad repeatedly returned to drop off mouthfuls of insects for their eager offspring. We were able to observe these precious moments at close range, watching with awe as the parents swooped in to serve breakfast to the babies. I always appreciate the opportunity to do some quality birdWATCHING, rather than just scrambling around in search of rarities. This lovely morning with the swallow family was just the kind of relaxation I needed after my hectic week.

Miriam and I returned to our homes and prepared for the evening, meeting up to head into Manhattan together. Against all odds, I actually got my bag back from the LIRR lost and found, with all contents intact! I delivered my master’s defense presentation without any problems, and we celebrated at nearby Aleo with my friendly bartender Alba. It was a fine kickoff to vacation, and I’m happy to put that stress behind me for now. Here I come, summer!

Year List Update, June 29 – 309 Species (+ Saltmarsh Sparrow)

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